The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Never mind
the black bars;
wider is better


January 10, 2002
By Franklin Harris

The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes the customer is just plain stupid.

For example, a stupid Blockbuster customer is one who would rather rent the pan 'n' scan version of a movie than the widescreen version.

If you're the sort who complains when you see a movie shown with "black bars" at the top and bottom of the TV screen, you're part of the problem.

Most modern films have screen ratios of 2.35:1 or 1.85:1, making them wider than current television sets, which are 1.33:1. When you see a 2.35:1 movie on television minus the black bars, you're missing half of the image, which is cropped on either side.

The widescreen format preserves the part of the image that otherwise would be lost.

The pan 'n' scan format is a poor substitute. It creates side-to-side motion where none exists in the original. For example, the camera might appear to pan between two actors, alternating as each speaks. But in the original, both are on screen simultaneously.

After years of suffering through badly cropped, pan 'n' scan jobs, film lovers finally saw the tide turn in their favor in the mid '90s, as widescreen versions of major films began to appear on video.

Then, a few years later, came DVD.

Most DVDs are in widescreen format, and some contain both the widescreen and the pan 'n' scan version.

Of course, just as victory seemed near, disaster struck.

Whereas DVDs were once only for film aficionados, now they are hot consumer items.

By the end of the year, more than half of U.S. households will own a DVD player, and Blockbuster expects DVDs to account for half of its movie rentals by 2003.

Casual viewers are buying and renting more DVDs than the enthusiasts ever could, and that's the problem.

Casual viewers still don't like widescreen. Many still think the black bars are cutting off part of the picture, even though the reverse is true.

Universal Studios releases DVDs in separate widescreen and pan 'n' scan versions, and last year, the pan 'n' scan edition of "The Grinch" outsold the widescreen edition by nearly two to one.

Blockbuster knows where the money is, so it is pushing Hollywood to release more pan 'n' scan DVDs.

It's OK if studios want to release DVDs containing both versions of a film, but some will take the cheap way out, releasing only the pan 'n' scan version.

Artisan Entertainment may be starting a trend. Artisan just released a pan 'n' scan-only DVD of "Sleepless," a new thriller from director Dario Argento.

If a company will do that to a film by a director with a small, devoted following, just imagine what will happen to films with more widespread appeal.

Already, Warner Bros. has stuck us with a pan 'n' scan-only "special edition" DVD of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

But if you are one who just hates seeing those black bars, be careful what you wish for.

Soon, you'll probably own a new, high-definition, 16x9 television. And if all your DVDs are pan 'n' scan, you'll have to put up with black bars all over again.

Only then, they will be on the sides, and they really will be cutting off part of what you should be seeing.

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